71:  Of Reading, Writing, and My Greatness

I was not born great.  I first oped my eyes in the old Earl’s stable.  That’s why I do love a stable.  A place of scents and sounds most dear to me.

But my lord’s stable was not so peaceful after my little niece lodged there.  She oft told me that she longed to be akwaynted with a book.  I believe it was our play that put this maggot in her head.

A row of books, jumbled on a shelf.

One day when my house was quiet (most gone to a fair or somesuch) I offered to show her the book chamber.

My niece – unaccustomed to so great a house – was doubtful.  She crept in low-bellied, her eyes wide and dark.  I told her we would hear if any came.  She could hide herself while I feigned mouse-watch.

A close=up of the nose and squinting eyes of Gib's niece - a blacl, white, and orange cat.She whispered that she feared the books who sat so still.  “They mean to spring on us,” she sayt.

“They lack the power of motion,” I sayt, and plucked one from the shelf.

She sprang away, but then sat swivel-eared.  “It tells of nowt.  I cannot hear it, nor take its thoughts.”

When she grew bold enough to nose it, she sayt, “It tells of you, and of a man.  He had his hand on a dog not long since.”

I sayt, “Your nose tells who last pawed it.  If you could read, your eyes would tell of hawks.  This book is of falconry.”

Her innocent questions made me merry.  But I was mazed, too.

I entered my lord’s service before I was weaned.  I sat with him and his lady sister in the schoolroom and took my learning there.

I’ve lived long among great folks and forgot how strange all must seem to one reared in a barn.  I offered to show her another part of the house.  I arrkst if she would like to swing from a curtain, or see her self in a mirror.

She refused.  “I wish to know what reading is,” she sayt.

So I leapt onto a table where a soiled, sour thing lay.  Some knave had thumbed it in an alehouse before he left it here.  But it would serve.

“Now see,” sayt I, “these black marks?  Like to a host of little worms?  They are sounds imprinted.”

She joined me, and sayt she could see nowt.

“You’re too near,” sayt I.  “You must sit a way off.”

She drew back, then poked the page.  “They will not move,” she sayt.

“They’re not true worms,” sayt I.  “But they can creep from your eyes to your brain and grow wings there.  Look!  Here it says: tread on a worm and it will turn.  I believe that means a snake will bite you.” 

A page from Robert Greene's Groatsworth of Wit containing his famous attack on 'the upstart crow', generally believed to be Shakespeare.

I read a little more, and sayt, “Here it tells of a tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide.  I have a tiger’s heart, as do you, for all are cats.  But how came a mere player to have the heart of a cat? Perchance he thieved it.  We must read more to know. ” 

“Worms! Eyes! Tigers! Flies!” She struck the page four times.

“Have a care,” I warned her.  “If any page be clawed or torn, this chamber might be closed to me.”

Another lesson I learnt young.  But how learnt I to read?

Then it come to me.  First I learnt to write.  I listened to the sounds my lord made, and watched him make marks with his pen.

And after I could write these marks, I looked for them in books.

The marks in books are many, and oft unknown to me.  Some books are imprinted fair; others are foul and hard to read.

But I found a book of little tales I could read, and then I came upon the Bevis book.  From that I made my first tale.

I believe there are some in this world who can read what’s imprinted, but know not how to write. There are others who can hold a pen and make their names or another pretty mark, but cannot read.

I can do both.  “And that,” as I told my niece, “is why I achieved greatness as a poet.”

“And why my mother told me you never caught owt in your life save a jewel hung from our Earl’s ear,” she sayt.  “But now I know you watch for worm-words, not mice.”

I sayt, “If you are as witty [clever] as your mother was, I can teach you to write.  You need not trouble yourself with reading.”

“Good,” sayt she.  “For books are false.  I believe my nose, mine eyes, mine ears, and my whiskers.  And what my mother told me.  Nowt else.”

As I led her from the house I sayt, “I’ll fetch you when next I find all that’s needful for writing left readie.”

(She did not ask what was needful.  For which I offer thanks: I had not the strength to explain the use of quills, ink, and paper.)

She sayt, “Then I’ll have greatness thrust upon me.”

Saucie.  Like unto her mother.


Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorThe first book Gib read “of little tales” was probably a collection of Aesop’s fables.  We know he read some of these, because his tale of The Fox and the Cat is derived from Aesop.

The “sour thing” – he means its smell – that he shows his niece is Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, first published in 1592 and attributed to the playwright Robert Greene (1558-1592).  It’s famous nowadays for its attack on an actor referred to as an “upstart crow” who, owing his success to the work of writers such as Greene, thinks he can “bombast out a blank verse” and is “in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”  This is almost universally accepted as an attack on William Shakespeare.

However, astute readers of this blog have spotted that Shakespeare appears to have pilfered some of Gib’s work.  Oh dear.  Who wrote what is just so complicated. 

69:  Vexations

A black cat (Nero) peeking round a door.Nero came by.  He arrkst if I intended to compose a verse for my late sister and give it out at the Cats’ Field.

I sayt I would not.  I write to joy myself and others, not tell of my private sorrows.

“Then I might,” sayt he. “I’ll think on it.”

Next he sayt, “You’re like to go soon.”

I arrkst him how many winters he’d seen.

“Eight,” sayt he.

I gave him the lie.  I told him he was no kitling when we became akwaynted.  And that was eight or nine winters past.

A ship underwater with fish swimming past.
Tropick waters: a shipwreck with sea monsters.

“True,” he sayt.  “But I’d been at sea.  We sailed in tropick waters where there are no winters.”

I yawned to show my disbelief.

Nero added, “Salt keeps all flesh sound.  I was shipwracked, and swam for my verie life with a host of sea monsters coming hot behind me.  Salt water has preserved me.”

He’s a fickle-tongued fellow.

My little niece (though she be not so little now) has been woeful since her mother went.

She complains of her grown sister, now the barn queen.

Viz, her sister gives her evil looks, and finds fault with all she does.  And her cousins who were once her playfellows have grown unkind.

I sayt, “It’s the way of the world.  When the highest falls, another rises.  And her friends rise with her.  Such is fortune.”

“I will not bide where I’m distained,” sayt she.  “I shall lodge with you.”

I sayt, “That cannot be.  All the places in my household are taken.”

“But,” sayt she, “are you not the highest there?  Can you not do as you list [like]?”

I was shamed then.  In truth, to aid her is my dutie.

“But what of your kitlings?” I arrkst.  “Few born in this house will be left to you.  The queen cats employed here to keep down mice and rats scarce see any of their kits live to be full-grown.”

“Why can’t I be cut as you were?” she arrkst.  “Then I need not be troubled by kits.”

What a wicked fancie.

I sayt, “It’s not possible for a she-cat to be cut and live to tell of it.  Your testes, that the common sort do call your stones, are hid deep within your belly.”

“How know you that?” she arrkst.

“From a learned book that told of men and women.  Certes, we cats are quicker in our wits and our doings than they, but we are like in our bodies.  This book sayt that Nature concealed women’s testes well.  Why?  So that women might not know they’re as well-made as men.  Were women to know that, they’d lose all shame and be even more uppish than they are.”

A young and fluffy black, white, and orange cat.
Gib’s Niece

“I’ve never seen nor heared a book,” sayt she.

I sayt, “Some books tell nowt but lies.  But it come to me that the Queen Cat of Heaven hid she-cats’ stones within their bellies for their greater safety.”

My niece sayt, very sour, “My mother told me that had she been a gib-cat like you, she might have been a poet.”

“Your mother did not know her letters.  How could she have writ?”

“Nero does not know his letters,” sayt she.  “Yet he’s a poet.”

That’s true.

I begin to comprehend why her grown sister and her cousins find her vexatious.


Editor's Note. Small image of a quill pen.The idea that female bodies were designed to convince women of their inferiority appealed to Renaissance anatomists, whose own theories were derived from Hippocrates (BC c.460-c.375), Aristotle (BC 384-322) and Galen (AD 132- c201).

However, feline society is dominated by matriarchs, so Gib provides a different explanation as to why the female testes (i.e. ovaries) are hidden.  But what book is he referring to? 

In 1592 (50: My Observations) Gib announced that he was “learning Italian, as the nobilitie do”.  Presumably, he’d been sitting in on the Earl of Southampton’s conversations in Italian with his tutor John Florio (1553-1625).

John Florio, from the 1611 edition of his Italian & English dictionary.
John Florio, from the 1611 edition of his Italian & English dictionary.

John Florio’s first language manual Florio his Firste Fruites was published in 1578 with a dedication to Elizabeth I’s long-term favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

Around the same time, the Earl of Leicester was among the patients of an Italian doctor Giulio Borgarucci (known as Dr Julio), who became a royal physician.  Dr Julio’s brother Prospero was Professor of Anatomy at Padua, and published Della Contemplazione Anatomica sopra Tutte le Parti del Corpo Umano in 1564.  Dr Julio probably had a copy.

John Florio may have known Dr Julio, so Gib could have heard Florio speak of Professor Borgarucci’s book.

Florio has been suggested as an influence on Shakespeare; he’s sure to have influenced Gib.